Should kids be forced to stand for the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance?
According to a law in Florida, where I am a resident, yes.
Here it is.
Each district school board may adopt rules to require, in all of the schools of the district, programs of a patriotic nature to encourage greater respect for the government of the United States and its national anthem and flag, subject always to other existing pertinent laws of the United States or of the state. When the national anthem is played, students and all civilians shall stand at attention, men removing the headdress, except when such headdress is worn for religious purposes.
The law smacks of a McCarthy-era loyalty pledge, which is problematic enough.
And, in fact, in one Florida locale, they are enforcing that law.
Florida’s Orange County Public Schools announced this week that their students must have parental permission if they want to kneel during the national anthem at football games.
First, patriotism. I am totally in favor of patriotism. I consider myself to be a patriotic American. I definitely support demonstrations of patriotism towards my country. Yes, despite all of its flaws (where did we ever learn that a nation’s flaws exempt its citizens from showing national pride?)
Second, symbolic gestures. I am totally in favor of symbolic gestures. Religion is filled with them.
This weekend, when our religious school kids rose and sang the Sh’ma, the Jewish affirmation of the unity of God, I did not ask how many kids actually believe in that rather sophisticated theological idea.
We just sang it.
Truth is: I want them to believe it, though I know that I cannot force it.
And the other truth is: symbolically celebrating a belief and affirming it — actually strengthens that belief. It creates a habit of mind and of action.
But — should the state force our young people to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance?
Should we be compelling our young people to bring a note from home, giving them permission not to do so?
And this is the part where those conservative friends will probably stop smiling.
My answer: No.
I find it fascinating that this discussion arises during the week in the Jewish calendar when we read the account of the rebellious son, in the book of Deuteronomy.
If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.
Relax: as even the ancient sages said, it never happened. The text serves as some kind of object lesson — a cautionary tale, if you will — or parental fantasy writ large in holy writ.
Even though kids should learn some kind of impulse control.
But, why were rebellious kids never really punished?
Perhaps this is why.
Judaism was born when Abraham rebelled against his father, and broke his idols. (Don’t bother looking for it in the Bible; it’s a legend.)
The Jewish people was sustained when Pharaoh’s daughter rebelled against her father, and saved the infant Moses.
Gluttony and drunkenness, as the text proscribes: not a good idea.
But a certain kind of spiritual rebellion: why not?
That brings us back to our kids who want to imitate Colin Kaepernick?
Should they have to bring a note from their parents in order to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance?
Here is why.
Judaism believes that young people achieve moral majority when they were thirteen years old. That is why they become bar or bat mitzvah at that age.
That means that we believe that young people are old enough to begin to grapple with these issues for themselves. They should not need Mommy or Daddy’s signature on a note in order to wrestle, even and especially publicly, with those issues of patriotism and devotion.
At the very least, we should welcome our young people thinking for themselves — even if we don’t agree with them. We should engage them in conversation. We should challenge them, and let them challenge us.
I say this, both as a parent and as an educator.
We need to give our kids space to figure this stuff out for themselves.
In the words of the Indian Jewish poet, Nissim Ezekiel:
Protect my children from my secret wish to make them over in my image and illusions. Let them move to the music that they love, dissonant perhaps to me.
A little bit of healthy rebellion never hurt anyone.
If anything, let’s be proud that our kids — are actually thinking.